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Sonoma County Granges’ status in question

California’s community granges, 19th-century agrarian institutions that in Sonoma County have enjoyed a revival among sustainable food enthusiasts, now face a high-stakes decision on where to place their allegiances.

For the past few years, the granges on the North Coast and around the state have operated apart from the National Grange and under the umbrella of a group that used to be called the California State Grange. But a federal court this week issued an order prohibiting the use of the word “grange” in the name of the breakaway state group, now rebranded as CSG, and of its 165 chapters.

Now those local groups, which include a dozen in Sonoma County, must decide whether to return to the national group or risk losing both their names and any assets, including their grange halls.

“We hope they will come back and rejoin the grange fold,” said Ed Luttrell, president of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, as the group is formally known.

The local chapters are free to remain independent, but in so doing “you’re not going to use our name and you’re not going to use our assets,” said Ed Komski, president of a group that the national grange reorganized in July 2014.

Both Luttrell and Komski insisted that grange halls and related property remain part of the national organization whenever a local chapter ceases to exist as an official grange.

Bob McFarland, president of CSG, didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment Friday. But on Friday afternoon he sent an email to local chapter leaders in which he said that many aspects of the recent court case went in his group’s favor and CSG will appeal the ruling.

“Do not be intimidated by Mr. Komski’s and Mr. Luttrell’s threats and demands,” McFarland wrote in the email. “Our freedom is not for sale at any price.”

The national group began in 1867 as a means to advance agriculture and foster the social and economic health of farmers and rural communities.

Sonoma County boasts the nation’s longest continuously operating grange hall in Bennett Valley, founded in 1873. Along with the county’s 12 sites, the North Coast has eight chapters in Mendocino County, five in Lake County, two in Napa County and one in Marin County, according to the CSG website.

Forty-two state granges were restarted in recent years, including the Hessel and Petaluma chapters. Some of the groups have provided forums to discuss climate change, organic farming and genetically modified foods.

Amidst the revival, the local chapters haven’t paid dues to the National Grange for at least two years during a dispute with the group that is now CSG. The conflict has resulted in legal action at both the state and federal levels.

Those involved were reluctant to detail what caused the conflict. But Komski maintained that both state and federal court rulings have demonstrated that the National Grange’s constitution and bylaws still apply to the California granges.

“Hopefully, the first step in healing is for everyone to recognize the rules,” he said.

The recent court order is likely to be a topic of conversation when the local chapters gather for their annual state meeting Wednesday through Sunday in Grass Valley.

On Friday, a few county grange leaders demonstrated caution in discussing what comes next.

Ned Lewis, secretary at the Hessel Grange, wrote in a email that his group has not made any decision about its name.

“Right now we are waiting to see what happens and what advice we might receive from the original California State Grange (CSG),” he said. “I’m sure this will be a topic of much discussion at future meetings.”

Jerry Allen, president of the Sebastopol Grange, said his group intended “to continue to use our name.”

He declined to say much more, except that “we are going to follow all the court orders and rulings and remain a community grange.”

Patty Allen, secretary of the Bennett Valley Grange, maintained the court ruling applies only to CSG, who she said “still represents a huge majority of the granges in California.”

“The Bennett Valley Grange will retain its name until we are told not to by the courts,” Allen wrote in an email.

Jame Bikoff, attorney for the National Grange, maintained the ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California does affect the local chapters. He pointed to its language prohibiting not only CSG but also “any party acting in concert” with the group from using the word “grange” in its name.

Bikoff likened the dispute to past cases where such organizations as the NAACP, the Jaycees and the YMCA have gone to court to prohibit breakaway groups from using their names.

“The name is the most precious asset of all for these groups,” he said.

Jenifer Wallis, attorney for CSG, continued to insist that other groups should be able to legally use the word “grange” because it is a “common and descriptive” term from England that predates the National Grange and refers to farmers and farming.

As a result of the ruling, Wallis said, “CSG is fulling complying with that court order with plans to appeal.”

You can reach Staff Writer ?Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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